Plain home cooking or exotic gourmet adventure – sometimes it is only the seasoning that makes the difference. The sheer range of available spices, from familiar ones like aniseed to zatar (a spice mixture from North Africa), is vast, and sometimes confusing, but it offers creative chefs and product developers enormous possibilities. The smell and taste of a fish product are at least as important as its appetizing appearance. No products are served today completely unseasoned. Already the smell can awaken pleasurable anticipation, stimulate the flow of saliva, and sensitize our perception. Stomach and intestines are activated and increase the production of digestive juices which shortens the subsequent digestion process.
The purpose of spices, herbs and other aroma ingredients is not limited to enhancing or reducing a food’s own flavour. Spicing techniques such as marinating can even be what makes it possible at all to eat certain fish products without suffering subsequent digestive problems. Spices can even influence the physiological effects of some foods, weakening or strengthening their effects. This makes them interesting not only as a welcome flavour component but also as a possible remedy for certain disorders. That some herbs and spices really possess such skills was already known several thousands of years ago, as records from China and Egypt have revealed. Europe’s crusaders later got to know and learned to appreciate the opulence and sophistication of Oriental taste… so much so that some of them no longer wanted to do without these pleasures and took exotic spices back home with them. The precious spices were rare and accordingly expensive and so were considered a status symbol at that time. Anyone who wanted to impress their guests at a banquet made good, often lavish, use of them. Historians, however, believe that this was not the only reason why spices were used excessively but that it was also in an attempt to tackle the problem of the unpleasant smell of slight spoilage in fish and meat.
With a few exceptions spices are usually of plant origin, with nearly all parts of the plants being utilisable: mainly flowers, leaves, fruits and seeds but also stems, roots or bark. What part of the plant is used as a spice mainly depends on the content of aromatic ingredients. Chemists divide spices into different families. For example essential oils that can consist of more than 100 substances, or alkaloids such as piperine that gives pepper, cayenne pepper and paprika their sharpness. The group of sharp substances also includes capsaicin that can be found in extremely high concentrations in some types of chili. Some carotenoids, coumarins, flavonoids and glycosides also have a certain pungency, the best known representatives of this group being mustard oil. These and other spices are synthesized by the plants themselves during the process of metabolism.
Gentle processing preserves aroma and seasoning power
Spices are either gathered as pure wild natural products or produced in agricultural cultures. Purified and isolated, enriched or otherwise prepared, they are available to us today in an amazing range and quantity. Through gentle, finely tuned preservation techniques they are often even available throughout the year, largely independent of their natural harvesting season. Nearly all spices are in the meantime prepared with modern methods so that they are suitable for use in private households, in catering, hotels and restaurants or by companies in the food processing industry, and they are available in all desired forms. Because high temperatures have a detrimental effect on pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and other spices, for example, these are crushed or ground in cryogenic processes under continuous cooling with liquid nitrogen. This gentle technique preserves the aroma and the characteristic flavour of the spices particularly well. In order to kill microorganisms and microbes that could be present in natural raw materials the spices are heated briefly during processing using steam which guarantees optimum hygiene and product safety. Regular inspections and analyses, computer controlled high performance mixers and automatic weighing, dosing and filling systems today enable the production of a variety of spice products that stand out for their natural flavour, their consistently high seasoning power and top quality standards. This is not only true of raw spices but also spice mixtures, marinades and special additives of which some are produced to fit the customer’s requirements right down to the last milligram.
Perhaps parsley, celery and other herbs will also soon be available as seasoning pastes which come particularly close to the aroma of fresh plants because the volatile essential oils of these herbs are hardly lost during production. To this purpose the herbs are either ground when fresh from the harvest and briefly blanched or heated with electricity for a few seconds to 100 degrees to kill germs and destroy quality degrading enzymes in the plant. Unlike mustard, horseradish or pesto that are already offered as pastes it is said that the new paste products will be able to do without salt or oil.
Choosing suitable spices is often a problem for amateurs
The days in which some cooks got by with just salt and pepper are gone. Fish and seafood in particular are ideally suited to a wide range of cooking methods, be it grilling, frying, boiling or steaming. Nearly everything is possible with seafood – from intensely fruity and sharply exotic, to Mediterranean, Asian or Creole and Indian inspired curry aromas. People who like fish can go on a culinary trip around the world without having to leave their own dining table. If people tended to make rather restrained use of seasoning in the past, some have in the meantime done a complete turnaround and now, instead of salt, use expensive imported alternatives from faraway places around the world. The old principle that many things are possible but not everything is actually useful and helpful also applies to the flavouring of fish dishes. Top chefs compare this with a concert that ultimately only convinces listeners when all the instruments are perfectly coordinated and the drumbeat comes at exactly the right time and with precise volume. That is why there is no universal panacea for the addition of herbs and spices but just some basic rules that should be followed when preparing soups and sauces, marinades, stews, salads, casseroles and other fish dishes.
The classic school of seasoning fish is more purist and calls for no more than a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Lemon is dispensable as long as the fish is really fresh for the sourness really only serves to neutralize the “fishy” smell of the biogenic amines in the fillet. Fresh dill nearly always fits, as does ground paprika and a pinch of cayenne or chili if a slight sharpness is tolerated and desired. Fresh herbs such as dill or parsley should be added only shortly before serving because they quickly lose their aroma. Asian and oriental fish dishes rarely get by without star anise, mint, cardamom, lemon grass, saffron, coriander, lemon balm, ginger or curry. For Mediterranean dishes oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, tarragon and sage are practically indispensable. Anyone who wants to prepare a versatile fish stock can hardly do without root or leaf parsley, chives, celery, chervil, thyme, tarragon, marjoram, garlic, mustard seeds, bay leaves, onions – preferably leeks – juniper berries and pimento. Although they go well with a lot of fish dishes, sour-piquant capers, lemon or lime zest and vanilla, which can intensify the aroma of a fish soup or a mussel dish if finely dosed, are seldom used.
The barely conceivable flood of spices is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. Who can judge in advance whether or how they fit together or with which herb the desired flavour will best be achieved? Once overdosed it is hardly possible to correct something. That is why a lot of people rely on ready mixed spices that are a perfect fit for a particular product or dish. These kinds of mixtures enable even amateur cooks for whom the choice and dosage of individual spices is difficult, to prepare professional looking fish specialities simply, quickly and successfully. Such mixtures are also quite economical because they free one from the need to buy large quantities of herbs and spices fresh of which only small quantities are sometimes needed. On the other hand, spice mixtures have the disadvantage that they limit the cook’s creativity in the kitchen. They offer what one might call an off-the-shelf flavour, which is then hard to vary. To get around this trap and set one’s own mark where flavour is concerned a lot of food producers have the spice mixtures put together precisely according to their specifications. This saves own storage space and investments in mixing technology, prevents dosage errors when mixing and guarantees high consistency of flavour, which is of course a must where brand products are concerned.
Pre-flavoured batters and crumbs for fish products
A good way to combine seasoning and seafood product is to use coatings, for example crisp bread crumbs or delicate batter. Such product forms are particularly suited to lean fish species. The coating protects the product from heat during cooking, the result is crisp on the outside and, in contrast, still tender and juicy on the inside. The common standard is still fine bread crumbs but there are also flavour alternatives that often produce even crisper products. For example cornflakes, corn meal or panko, a light Japanese variety of bread crumbs. A lot of producers already mix the breading raw materials with spices, herbs and other components, for example grated cheese, coconut flakes or finely chopped nuts which opens up numerous possibilities for different flavours. The variety ranges from tandoori to Provençale, from BBQ to hot ‘n’ spicy or garlic & herbs, to name but a few. If the herbs, spices and other ingredients are evenly spread in the coating the consumer will later experience the same taste with every bite.
With coated products, however, it is not only a question of the flavour of the breading or the batter. It is also important that the fish is completely covered with the coating and that this sticks well and evenly everywhere. Currently the food industry chooses liquid coatings that are trickled onto the seafood product or into which the product is completely dipped. Excess coating is blown off by an air curtain before the coating is fixed onto the product by heating briefly. There are many new developments in this area, too, which considerably extend the production methods and possible applications of coated products. Some breading types can, for example, be sprayed onto the products, and gel-like applications that stick to the product particularly well are also possible today. Some producers have launched ready-to-cook products with special breading or batter that is said to be crisp even after preparation in the microwave or steam cooker. For low-calorie light products water-based product coatings have been developed to enable uniform application of spices and herbs. Whilst they stick to the fish fillet the carrier substance evaporates and “disappears” when heated. Of course there are also ready seasoned breading and batter types with which hobby cooks can produce perfectly crisp fish dishes. They already contain all the necessary ingredients including spices and binders so that the fresh or frozen fillets just have to be rolled in them before they go into the frying pan or oven.
Marinating can be used for both seasoning and maturing
Marinating is probably the most versatile and most complex method for seasoning fish. Originally the French term meant to “pickle” as in the placing of fish in brine or a mixture of herbs and spices but today it is understood much more broadly. It is not only used for preserving fish but also as a means of giving a product flavour or as a cooking method to render fish and numerous other foods edible through treatment with vinegar, acids, salt and other ingredients. In the classic variety fish is usually placed in a sour marinade. The acid penetrates the muscle tissue and decomposes the connective tissue which is poorly developed in fish, making it even more soft and tender. This means that the spices in the marinade can penetrate more deeply into the fillet. If marinating is only used for the purpose of flavouring the fish is usually subsequently fried, grilled, baked or cooked in some other way. If, however, the fillet is left in the marinade for a longer time, the result is a “cold cooked” product that is equally suited to direct consumption. From a chemical point of view vinegar and other acids cause the denaturation of muscle protein which corresponds to the processes that are achieved through thermal effects during cooking. In the seafood sector we are familiar with a lot of products that are rendered edible through marinating alone… for example gravlax, pickled herring, kronsild, Bismarck herring or ceviche, a Peruvian dish consisting of raw fish pieces marinated briefly in lime juice and mixed with finely diced onions and pepper-like vegetables. In Indian cuisine milk products are also used for marinating.
So where marinating is concerned, too, there is no universal solution that covers all tastes and individual ideas. The variety of marinades is accordingly wide and they are offered for various different applications and purposes. In addition to the classic vinegar and salt marinade it is also possible to use seasoning salts, herb oils, sauces that suit the product flavour or a rich herbal butter to pickle fish. It should be noted that marinades should be twice as concentrated and flavoured as the finished product should later taste. Anyone who does not trust their own ability to prepare a marinade can rely on industrially produced ones. These ready mixtures are available as powder that just has to be suspended in oil or water before use, or in liquid form whose viscosity does not, however, always meet all requirements. Marinades that are too thick can be thinned slightly with a little oil, water or vinegar, but if they are too thin this presents more of a problem. Salt should not be used in marinades because it draws part of the tissue fluid out of the fish through osmosis and renders it dry. This makes it more difficult for spices and aromas to penetrate the muscle tissue. Brine, as used for marinating salt herring, is an exception to this rule.
Fruit and lactic acids can replace vinegar
Irrespective of the recipe and purpose of marinating, three basic components are generally required for a marinade: oil, acid or acidic liquids, and spices. The choice of oil demands certain experience because some oils (e.g. olive and rapeseed oil) have their own intense flavour which can overlay more subtle flavours. With regard to acid, where fish is concerned it doesn’t always have to be vinegar since wine, sour cream, buttermilk or lemon juice, which also hides the fish smell, are equally suited. Fruity acids, like those that are characteristic of orange or lime juice, are an excellent fit for fish marinades. For the choice of spices the cook can choose his own favourites. Classic spices for fish marinades are pepper, pimento, dill, bay leaves, onions and mustard seeds, but garlic and coriander seeds can also be used depending on the desired flavour. For sweet ‘n’ sour fish dishes sugar, honey or other sweeteners are mixed in. The finer and more tender the fish, the more careful one should be when preparing the marinade. An excess of herbs and spices can really kill a mild aroma.
During marinating the fish fillets have to be fully submerged in the liquid, and preferably contained in an air-tight dish that is stored in a cold place. Depending on the fish species, size and product the pieces should remain in the marinade for several hours to several days. For small, tender fishes or prawns one hour is usually sufficient because they quickly become crumbly and can fall apart during subsequent cooking. Because the exposure time is critical and has a strong influence on the final quality processing companies often prefer other methods when marinating fish, for example tumblers or injectors. In the tumbler the fishes are mixed with the marinade under vacuum, the injector injects the spice solution directly into the muscle tissue through numerous needles. Both techniques have their advantages and disadvantages. They do not only influence the yield and the flavour but also the maturation and preservation effect. For that reason it can only be decided on an individual basis whether they are suitable for a particular product.